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Back To Office Anxiety? 4 Things Leaders Should Do

- 04 Jun 2021 by Yehezkiel Faoma Taslim

With COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out, life outside slowly turns its gears again. Shops are opening, concerts are back on, and people are going back to work in the office. Seems like life is going back to normal.

But what about the new normal?

Returning to the old normal will be as difficult as it was adapting to the new normal over a year ago. And just as well, it’s our duty as HR / Human Capital leaders to lead through the anxieties and worries that people may feel coming back to the office.

What are companies doing?

A survey of over 2,000 companies identified 4 options for returning to the office after the pandemic.

Full return

Few companies planned for a full return to work from the office. Employees would return in gradual phases, and health and safety protocols would have to be closely watched and enforced.

Partial flexibility

In this scenario, employees would come to the office for only a few days per week and work the rest from home. This is by far the most popular option among companies and talents alike.

Selective remote

This plan involves moving select teams to work remotely for good, while the rest would need to come to the office. Jobs in the creative, tech, and support fields are likely candidates for a permanent work-from-home arrangement.

Full remote

In contrast, some companies choose to not return to the office at all. Building a fully remote workforce is more common among tech companies.

Fears around returning to the office

Staff-level workers are more uncomfortable about going back to the office compared to high-level executives. Here are just some of the worries that you may hear from your employees upon breaking the news.

Health and safety concerns

Even vaccines aren’t enough to allay the anxiety of going out of the house. The simple act of getting into the bus or the elevator can become a scary thought when you realize you’re breathing the same air as others in a confined space.

Your employees may have different experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s important to understand that some will take it harder than most.

Giving up the benefits of remote work

We’ve gotten used to better work-life balance, having more time for family and exercise, not having to commute every morning, and more benefits of working from home — so much so that remote working will never go away even after the pandemic ends.

We tend to focus more on what we lose than what we gain. Letting go of all those perks and going back to traffic jams is a daunting change to your lifestyle. The more extroverted employees may be excited about meeting co-workers again, but the more introverted of us would hate losing the precious personal space of working from home.

Salary cuts

Some predict that remote workers could possibly face lower pay as companies look to adjust salaries with the remote locations. Employees who choose to (or must) work remotely from a low-cost city may have reduced pay. A more likely scenario is reducing pay rise instead of cutting salaries, creating anxiety about being “pressured” to come back to the office.

However, leaders noted that neither option aren’t likely to pick up. Employees could simply quit and find a new job, which is easier now since everything is remote.

Career advancement disadvantage

52% believe that working remotely is a disadvantage in their career progression. Meeting others in person can open up lots of opportunities, from building connections to getting involved in new projects.

A leader explained that salespeople who are willing to get out and meet clients face-to-face hold a significant advantage over those who choose to stay home. This further adds up to the pressure of “having to” come to the office, despite the worries, out of fear of missing out or even losing one’s job.

How to address back-to-office anxiety

Going back to the office won’t be the same for everyone. Some may welcome it while others might be against it. In balancing between business needs and the wellbeing of talents, it’s the time for leaders to be empathetic and supportive.

1. Overcommunicate from the start

When we don’t know much about the situation, we automatically assume the worst. This is how fear and resistance to change begins. So, be sure to explain everything thoroughly from the very start about the decision to return to the office.

Communicate your company’s safety protocols, put together health and safety guidelines for those who are coming back to the building. Post updates regularly and often. Call a video conference and anticipate any question that people may have. It’s better to overcommunicate rather than leave them in the dark.

2. Provide a safe space for concerns

It’s normal that people may not feel comfortable voicing out their concerns and anxieties in a public meeting. Make time to provide a safe space for your talents to express their worries about going back to the office. This can be an anonymous survey or a one-on-one session.

In fact, this is the perfect time for leaders to build some psychological safety. If you have your own worries about returning to the office, express them. Let your people know that you are in the same boat as they are, and that you’re going through this together.

3. Return in phases

As mentioned earlier, it’s best to get people back gradually in increments. Maybe start with 25% of your workforce in the first week, then 50% and 100% as time goes by. Besides mitigating the risk of exposure, incremental return helps to adapt and encourage your talents to the new old normal.

Fear spreads quickly but so does courage. Pick carefully your first batch of returnees to consist of those who would welcome the change positively. Once they’re settled in and spread the good news that it’s not so bad back in the office, fears would be alleviated and the others would be encouraged to follow suit.

4. Be supportive

Each individual may have been impacted differently by the pandemic. They may have faced traumatic situations or their lives might have been changed completely. Sometimes, working remotely may be the only option for them.

If this is indeed the case, be supportive and consider offering them a permanent remote working position. Help your talents find the right arrangement where they can be comfortable and most productive. The pandemic hit people hard, and it’s up to us to lead with empathy and provide support for the talents in the company.

Different cultures, different approaches

This article highlights the general guidelines to address back-to-office anxiety, but different approaches may be more appropriate for your company depending on your work culture. Discover your company culture with Dreamtalent and get to know your people and candidate better on the psychometric level, for better hiring and talent development.